Abstract. The term ‘online focused interview’ (or focus group) is commonly understood to refer to, primarily, marketing research or small-scale group analyses of online conference users. The potential scope for applying this empirical sociology technique, however, is much wider, including both basic and applied research. Making use of the Internet to organise a focused interview makes conducting a research a substantially less complex procedure, without affecting its quality or reliability of findings. If adapted to modern information technologies, this technique offers wider and more in-depth ways of applying the focus group method to labour and HR management, psychology, sociology, and marketing. The present paper provides a step-by-step analysis of the online focused interview technique through a comprehensive case study of a pilot sociological study conducted on the Internet.

Keywords: IT, communication, social studies, focused interview (focus group), opinion, quality, service, social services



1. Introduction

Academic studies of social processes and phenomena, and social studies in particular, aim to reflect and interpret important aspects of the real world, and, therefore, must provide relevant data that meets all the criteria of the modern age, one of which is following the latest technological advances.  

As P.A.Sorokin’s classical definition puts it, ‘The subject matter of sociology is, on the one hand, the human interaction, and, on the other hand, the phenomena arising therefrom’. Significantly, the kinds of relationships and phenomena that occur among individuals nowadays, and the processes arising from them, have shifted into a new, online plane. Cyberspace creates new forms of personal relationships and communication flow, providing greater opportunities for social interaction.

The progress in digital technologies helps to streamline the process of information sharing. In turn, a significant portion of methods employed in social research relies on analysing the process of sharing a particular kind of information: by interacting with the object of the study (the respondent), the subject (the researcher) receives information regarding a certain opinion.

Given the previously stated requirement of following the latest technological advances, the present research aims at facilitating adaptation of social research methods to modern information technologies by developing efficient methodology of their application. One such method whose scope of application can benefit from this specialised methodology is the focused interview (focus group).

2. Prior studies

Systematic application of focus groups was pioneered and described by Merton, Fiske and Kendall, who researched the effect of watching propaganda films on groups of interest. The method was originally described as follows:

  1. The persons interviewed are known to have been involved in a particular situation;
  2. To understand it more fully, the situation has been provisionally analysed by the social scientist. Through this analysis he has arrived at a set of hypotheses, to be tested at the data collection and analysis stage;
  3. The social scientist develops an interview guide providing criteria of relevance for the data to be obtained;
  4. The interview is focused on the subjective experiences of persons exposed to the pre-analysed situation, recalling what Merton termed ‘retrospective introspection’ or ‘retrospection’.

Nowadays the focus group became a sort of group discussion technique based around the participants formulating, substantiating, and arguing their opinions, thus providing the moderator, who put the original questions to them, with their reactions, as well as sharing information with each other. An important condition of setting up and running a focus group is that there must be no previous social contact between the participants.

Thus, the focus group is a qualitative social research method allowing one to

  • Study the manner in which an object is perceived by individuals representing different socio-demographic groups;
  • Develop original scientific ideas and concepts;
  • Observe the trends in stranger interaction;
  • Note the degree to which interviewees are able to independently describe their intrinsic motives.

‘The focus group is a sociological interview based on using real group dynamics in artificially created groups to reveal the peculiarities of a certain social group’s perception of an object of research.’

Some of the erroneous principles accounting for focusing on the wrong things in an interview, analysed by Donahue, include: ‘Focusing on the source of information: the tendency of some interviewees to judge the source, not the information itself.’ The focus group is aimed at discussing a topic, which should make its participants to not only argue, but also develop their opinions through discussion and criticism.

The methods of conducting social studies are under active development, drawing on modern technological and informational capabilities. Currently, the professionals, both practicing and academic, single out various types of online focus groups and other related qualitative social study techniques. Here are some of their main variants:

The online chatroom-based focus group (chat). Interviewees can speak out simultaneously; the discussion is automatically logged and is readily available to the researcher in textual form.

The online conference-based focus group (forum). ‘Unlike in a chat, the forum interview means each participant periodically, depending on their availability, visits the study webpage and answers the questions at the time of their choosing (usually 1-2 times per day depending on the length of the project and the number of questions per day). A forum interview usually takes 3 to 5 days (or longer, depending on the object of the study) during which the participants answer the questions, perform tasks, etc. The number of participants can reach 20 to 30. Therefore a single online forum interview can replace 3 or 4 offline focus groups. The format enables creating sub-groups of participants and assigning them separate tasks.’

Online blogs are currently particularly popular with researchers in marketing and commerce (consumer anthropology). As described by a team of scientists under I. Sinyayeva, the technique means that ‘each participant, apart from answering the moderator’s questions, is running an individual blog (to which only them and the moderator have access), writing down their thoughts on the subject (tasks) of the study. If asked by the moderator, they can also record events from their private lives related to the subject. Such blogs can be part of the forum, or constitute a separate project.’

The individual online interview (expert poll, in-depth interview). A private real-time discussion with the moderator provides comfortable psychological environment for the respondent, facilitating more frank and in-depth answers.

Despite the variety of techniques for conducting studies using modern technologies, there are a number of generalised pitfalls. In particular, the ‘Online research and social study techniques. New horizons, new (and the not so new) difficulties’ by Devyatko analyses ‘the problem of low reliability of Internet-mediated interviewee input due to lack of direct contact between the researcher and the informant.’

The widely used online focus group techniques cited above diverge greatly from the traditional method in that

  • There is no moderator;
  • The information is text-only;
  • There is no non-verbal information flow.

The proposed novel procedure for conducting online focus groups would not only bring the researcher as close as possible to the benchmark of the traditional focus group, but also decrease the risk of producing false information.

3. Methodology

To understand the main aspects of organising and conducting an online focused interview, one has to appreciate the technicalities of trying to apply the method, as illustrated by the results of a specific social study.

Providing a testing ground for the new method, the study in question deals with the issue of quality of services. Given the fact that serving customer interests is the primary goal of their operation, public opinion is an important factor in developing criteria for the performance of social services providers. Therefore, to test the methodology, a study must analyse how customers asses the quality of social services provided to them.

Describing the main aspects of setting up a focused interview must include details of all components of its organisation.

Form of interaction: the information space of a social network. This is the major novel feature of the method. A focus group must consist of strangers who nevertheless share a common attribute.

Depending on the goal of the study and the relevant common characteristic, the researcher builds a specific framework of informants. For an interview to be representative, in most cases it is enough for the sample group to come from the population of a community or a municipality broken down into a number of spatially proximate communities. Yet, many studies require the original population to encompass a wide enough geographical region. In such cases a focus group becomes too labour intensive to set up and too expensive to run.

Present-day realities offer a way of minimising possible expenditure on organising a focused interview by using modern information technologies. The Internet is full of various kinds of content and functions. Skype, in particular, is an online and client software product that allows text, voice, and video communication between users. It also allows one to make conference calls offering simultaneous verbal and non-verbal contact between several users at once.

This makes using focus groups in certain kinds of spatially challenging social studies no longer a problem.

The specific form of interaction determines other aspects of organising a focused interview, like the number of participants in a focus group, eight: the optimal number of informants under the given conditions. A small enough group allows the discussion to run with minimal order and organisation issues.

The territorial attribute defining the spread of the original population, a single region: in a region, the social services framework is run by single administrative body of the government, a ministry. Consequently, all social security providers in a region are working according to a common set of principles.

The group is homogenous; it consists of users of social services rendered by a provider. For maximum reliability of information, the group must include users of all types of standard social service providers available in the region.

The number of discussion groups is two. The original population, that is, the number of citizens in receipt of services through social security providers is 5 000, while the number of standard social services providers (one per each type, as defined by the GOST R 52880-2007. Social security. Types of social security organisations servicing senior and disabled citizens) is 12. Using statistics, informants are chosen to be pairs of users of the Integrated Social Services Centre, Juvenile Social Rehabilitation Centre, Family and Child Assistance Centre, and Multiservice Centre types of social service providers, and a single user per other type of organisation, bringing the total number of participants to 16.

In addition, when choosing informants one must also take account of municipality representation. The number of municipalities is 22, that is, no more than one participant per municipality.

An important element of organising a successful focused interview is choosing the right venue. There are numerous requirements which have to be met in order to provide comfort and usability. However, the method of online focused interview makes such requirements obsolete. The venue of the interview is the cyberspace.

The length of the interview, 90 minutes, is determined by the time, which the discussion of the topic guide questions is expected to take.

The interviewees were chosen from among the customers of an Integrated Social Services Centre, using the following criteria:

  • Sex (a focus group needs both male and female participants);
  • Age (20 to 60);
  • Sociability, level of participation in a discussion;
  • Access to Skype;
  • Representing the structure of social service providers’ user base (senior citizens, disabled persons, family members suffering hardship).

The moderator was a journalist, editor of a periodical on issues of social security and social services. The discussion was also attended by an expert in non-verbal communication, facial expressions, and body language, reading non-verbal information communicated by the participants (another novel feature of the proposed procedure).

The focus group was run on the basis of a topic guide developed for the subject of the study (see Appendix 1). The results were processed using discourse analysis methods.

4. Conducting the study and analysing the results

Conducting the study by setting up an online focus group produced a particular kind of atmosphere for the informants, one in which the contact with them was mediated through cyberspace. Forming the results of the study are the theses concerning the issue of social service providers’ quality of service.

Undoubtedly, dealing with the question of social service providers’ quality of service first requires defining the category of quality of service itself.

The latter, as understood by the informants, is a system of characteristics enabling one to analyse the outcome of a service rendered, work performed, or goods produced with a view to evaluating it. Moreover, the participants recognise that this concept applies to all spheres of public life, especially to the services sector.

‘For me, quality is what enables me to assess something in order to decide if it’s OK or not, useful or otherwise, good quality or bad quality.’

According to the interviewees, previously they only encountered the concept of quality of service when accessing private sector service providers, like the hairdresser’s, the repair shop, etc. Which, they explained, was due to social services being provided primarily by the state, free of charge. With its vast infrastructure, the state dominates the sector, especially in rural areas. This monopoly means quality is not a factor at all.

Some informants were satisfied with the way they had been served by the centre’s specialists, others were indifferent because the nature of their cases was formal and did not require extensive interaction with a specialist. It is worth noting that no interviewee expressed negative personal opinions of any centre specialist they approached.

‘I liked the girl that handled my papers. First of all, she smiled as was polite. Secondly, she took me through all the other kinds of benefit payments I did not even mention, and told me not to miss the chance to apply when I once again need assistance. We had a conversation, she even wished me a happy birthday, because it happened to be the day. That was very nice of her.’

‘A specialist like any other. Wasn’t rude to me, didn’t interrupt. What else do you need? Yes, I believe I would like her to service me again.’

The customers viewed quality of service offered by the Integrated Social Services Centre’s through both its specialists’ personal qualities (politeness, ability to listen, empathy) and through their perception of the result of their applying to them for assistance (what they wanted to achieve by applying). These subjective criteria made the interviewees judge the quality of services rendered to them by the centre’s specialists as good. Firstly, the specialists were adhering to standards of professional ethics. Secondly, since most citizens know little of their rights and entitlements, any extra help (apart from the usual processing of benefit payments, tax cuts, subsidies, etc.) is a pleasant surprise for them.

The interviewees emphasised they thought it highly important for social workers to be personally interested in the quality of the services provided by them, as a measure of their performance (especially in welfare services). Nevertheless, some noted that one must carry out their duties regardless of subjective aspects, including specialists’ motivation.

The latter view is valid; however, when dealing with the subject of social services one must acknowledge that the conduct of a social worker can have a positive influence on the actions, feelings, self esteem, and the general psychological well-being of the customer – something that cannot be achieved through formal interaction only.

‘If a person’s committed to his work, he’s doing it a lot better, and that makes everyone happier. I’m happier with such a man, feeling a lot better.’

‘You can tell if a man’s putting his heart into his work – if course, I can tell if a man is interested in helping me, if he’s willing to do what it takes, or not.’

Nevertheless, most informants were positive a specialist’s quality of service is influenced not by their personal commitment, but by circumstances beyond their control: the kind and the extent of the service offered by the state.

The informants acknowledged their own role in regulating social service providers’ quality of service: an organisation must have user feedback. Should they experience any breach of code or wrongdoing from one of the specialists, they ought to report that to people in charge of the organisation, and to other bodies (the judiciary or the relevant Ministry).

‘If we’re provided the service, naturally we want it to be rendered well, in full, and on time. Our opinion has to count, so that other customers could enjoy good quality of service, too.’

The interviewees also thought it desirable for third parties (above all, the Ministry) to conduct opinion polls among the customers of social services providers. The questionnaire must include questions about possible violations, rudeness, or denial of assistance, and also their expectations regarding specific services.

‘I think having opinion polls, with the results going to the authorities, is a good way of monitoring specialists’ performance and preventing mistakes.’

Queried what kind of questions they would like to see, had they been asked to assess the performance of Integrated Social Services Centre specialists, the interviewees came up with the following criteria:

  • Are there complaints from clients regarding specialists’ work?
  • Are there incidents of rudeness or carelessness among the specialists?
  • Are there incidents of clients unreasonably denied assistance?
  • How does the assistance rendered compare with customer expectations (applying for a service, clients must specify the kinds of assistance they expect to receive).

As noted by the informants, in retail and utility sectors, with the myriad of similar businesses offering the same services (enabling customers to choose the one they think best for them), quality of service is key to a business’ success.

By contrast, the social services sector (which, apart from social security organisations, includes educational, health, and other service providers) distinctly lacks the kind of choice offered by private sector organisations. Two factors account for this.

One is that social service providers are working to solve problems in the society, not to make a profit. The resulting lack of financial incentive affects the number of potential specialists in that field and their job motivation. Absence of competition from independent service provider organisations not run by the state results in the latter dominating the social services market. And market theory stipulates that lack of competition affects quality of service.

Still, the informants note that, despite the lack of stimulating competition, the quality of services provided by the majority of organisations in the sphere is good. This largely depends on the personalities of the specialists employed in this field. However, the lack of basic legal literacy, which makes most customers (used to having to solve their problems by themselves) pleasantly surprised by any offer of state assistance, is also a factor.

It should be noted that one of the functions of a social service provider is to inform the citizens of the types of assistance on offer; so, with time, legal literacy and awareness of an individual’s right to specific kinds of assistance in the society is growing. The next stage of this process is that the citizens will become actively involved in improving the quality of services provided to them.

5. Conclusions

Based on the information gained from the study representing opinions of users of social service providers, the results can be condensed into the following conclusions:

1. At the moment, the majority of specialists using the Internet as an information space are marketing specialists. New tools extending their repertoire are mostly coming from empirical sociology. Nevertheless, one can see that taken as a practical activity, marketing research is aimed at pursuing distinctly commercial, not scientific objectives. It is, therefore, necessary to extend the application of the present method to applied and basic research.

2. Transcribing the material obtained through online focused interviews, that is, informant opinions, one can see that the material is representative and scientific. In particular, it provides comprehensive reliable data that goes far beyond the kind provided by narrow marketing studies.

3. Ensuring the reliability of opinions communicated by the informants taking part in this king of study (as a focus group in particular) are the following factors:

  • There is a plurality of opinions more or less different from each other;
  • Individual participant opinions are extensive and well-argued;
  • The participants draw on individual private/professional experience relevant to the line of the study, the course of the discussion or the conversation.

4. Apart from expressing their opinions on existing phenomena of processes, the informants offered their own solutions to a number of specific issues. Firstly, they offered to fully involve themselves in the process of controlling quality of service. Secondly, the interviewees proposed to enhance official quality of service guidelines with four separate criteria of their own.

5. It is noteworthy that the online study offers both comprehensive results and minimal participant recruitment expenditure. Therefore, the method of online focused interview is not only representative, but also financially viable and cost-effective.

6. Its adaptability and versatility makes the online focus group applicable not only to social studies and marketing research, but also to academic research in business and labour management, psychological testing, etc.

6. References

  1. Batygin G. S.  Lekcii po metodologii sociologicheskih issledovanij / G. S. Batygin. – M. : RUDN, 2008. – 368 s.
  2. Dmitrieva E. V. Fokus-gruppy v marketinge i sociologii / E. V. Dmitrie-va. – M. : Centr, 1998. – 128 s.
  3. Marketing v kommercii: uchebnik: dlja studentov / I. M. Sinjaeva, S. V. Zem-ljak, V. V. Sinjaev. – Moskva. : Dashkov i Kº, 2011. – 543 s.
  4. Merton R., Fiske M., Kendall P. Fokusirovannoe interv'ju: Per. s angl. / Pod red. Belanovskogo S. A. – M. : Institut Molodezhi, 1991. – 106 s.
  5. Sorokin P.A. Sistema sociologii / P.A. Sorokin. –  M. : Jeksmo, 1993. T. 1. – 568 s.
  6. Shashkin A.V., Devjatko I.F., Davydov S.G. Onlajn issledovanija v Rossii 2.0. / Sbornik statej pod red. Shashkina A.V., Devjatko I.F., Davydova S.G. – M. : RIC «Severo-Vostok», 2010. – 545 s.

7. Appendices

Appendix 1. The topic guide

The moderator and the expert in non-verbal communication, facial expressions, and body language both introduce themselves and get acquainted with the participants of the interview.

  1. We’re all constantly hearing about ‘quality’ nowadays. This concept has permeated nearly every sphere of public life, from engineering and economics to welfare and culture. What do you think ‘quality’ means?
  2. Are you familiar with the notion of ‘quality of service’? If so, where did you encounter it? (Should the interviewees not mention social services in their replies, ask them about the quality of social services they are provided to).
  3. There are various social services organisations serving you, but all of you are, in one way or another, customers of the Integrated Centre, the primary social services provider. Please tell me if any of you happened to access other social services providers.
  4. What kind of assistance did you require?
  5. What was your opinion of the specialists handling your case? Should you have to seek further assistance, would you approach the same specialist again?
  6. Can you tell me about the quality of the service you were provided with? What, in your opinion, accounted for that level of quality of service?
  7. Let us now discuss the Integrated Social Services Centre. Can you please tell me how long you have been a customer of this particular organisation?
  8. Where did you learn of its existence? Who recommended it to you?
  9. How satisfied are you with the quality of services you are provided with? How do you explain it?
  10. Are you happy with the individual specialists handling your issues? Please elaborate.
  11. How important, in your opinion, is a specialist’s motivation, and how well can you tell if a specialist is personally interested in providing you with quality services?
  12. If asked to assess the performance of its specialists, what, in your opinion, could be the criteria one might use to judge the quality of services offered by the Integrated Social Services Centre?
  13. What, in your opinion, is the input social service provider clients can have in improving its quality of service? Should they offer to participate in improving the official quality of service guidelines?

Thank you for taking part in this interview!

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